Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League

Mar 2, 2015

Title: Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League
Author: Jonathan Odell
Publisher: Maiden Lane Press
Pages: 462
Price: $16.00 (Paperback)

This is Jonathan Odell’s first and third novel.

In 2012 Odell published “The Healing,” a novel of black and white, master and slave, set on a Mississippi plantation in 1847. The heroine, Polly Shine, is an herbalist, feared as a witch, and powerful enough to organize the slaves and lead a quiet but devastating insurrection against Master Ben Satterfield and the Big House.

Prior to “The Healing” Odell had published, in 2005, “The View from Delphi,” with MacAdam Cage Publishers of San Francisco, which went out of business. Revised and retitled “Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League,” the novel has been re-released by Maiden Lane Press, a new company that recently published Cassandra King’s “Moonrise.”

“Miss Hazel” bears similarities in theme, characters and setting—the beginnings of the civil rights era in Mississippi—to Kathryn Stockett’s smash novel, but was in fact written prior to the 2009 “The Help.” This is a tale of two young women, mothers, one black, one white.

In northeast Mississippi, called in this novel the Tombigbee Hills, young Hazel Ishee marries young Floyd Graham, just back from the war in the Pacific. They move west to Delphi in the Delta, culturally another world, where Floyd, a ludicrous go-getter, will make his fortune and move them into a big house on the hill. Floyd has become intoxicated with a self-help book, “There’s No Future in Looking Back: The Science of Controlled Thinking,” and his conversation is full of it: If you can see it, you can be it. Enthusiasm is contagious. Attitude determines altitude. Don’t spend a second of today fretting tomorrow or regretting yesterday. It’s a matter of magnetism: What are your thoughts attracting today? How fast you travel on the track to success is determined by your train of thought. In every failure is a seed for the next victory.

In real life, at a party, say, one would flee, but Floyd on the page is a riot.

All this tripe actually works for Floyd. A natural salesman, he moves cotton combines then gets the Lincoln dealership.

But Hazel is a mess. Before marriage, she lived at home and never learned to cook. She knows nothing about dressing herself. Hazel decorates their big house with two Stratoloungers, a green vinyl sectional couch and a coffee table in the shape of a banana. In a truly hilarious and depressing scene, the snobbish UDC / Trois Arts Club pays her a visit. The ladies ask of Hazel’s furniture, “What do you call it?” She replies: “Just furniture, I suppose.” They inquire further: “Didn’t you bring any family pieces with you from home?” Hazel responds: “No. My folks is still sitting in ’em, I reckon.” They explain that “Every month we consider the life of a painter, a composer, and an author.” This very month, it seems, they are “up to the P’s. Puccini, Proust, and Picasso.” Hazel replies, truthfully: “Ain’t that nice. Sounds so smart of y’all.”

Hazel serves the group Vienna sausages and ham bits in crushed pineapple, not proper lady food. The event is a catastrophe and Hazel has no clue why.

When Davie, her younger boy, dies in an accident, Hazel takes to drinking and driving the highways in her Lincoln.

Vida Snow is a black woman who, as a teenager, was raped by the evil Billy Dean Bister, who becomes sheriff and then, fearful of being found out, tries to kill his mulatto child, Nate. To save Nate’s life, Vida must send away her only child.

Vida, weary of life in the fields, becomes Hazel’s maid. The two women hate each other at first, but, two mothers each mourning the loss of a son, they become friends. In fact, Vida and her fellow black maids become Hazel’s only friends and form the secret Rosa Parks League to promote voting rights. Wise, patient, cunning, having already infiltrated the homes of the enemy where they gather intelligence daily, they are the advance troops for the coming battle.

Odell’s novel has a cast of fairly recognizable characters—plucky underclass; wicked sheriff; arrogant planter with two daughters, one beautiful and wild, the other spectacularly ugly; greedy, racist local businessmen who quickly form the White Citizens’ Council; snooty club women, and a load of plot: rape, embezzlement, attempted murder, cruelty and corruption of every kind.

Although at times “Miss Hazel” approaches melodrama, it is impossible not to enjoy Odell’s oversized storytelling.

And for those who might not already know, this novel demonstrates the absolute power of the county sheriff in places like Mississippi. There is no escape and no recourse. In fact, as Vida puts it at one meeting: “…in Alabama the law is bad to stand around and let you get kilt. But in Mississippi the Law be the ones trying to kill you….”

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”